After four weeks of (mostly) getting beaten about the head and shoulders by the rest of the country, the Big Ten’s top teams breathe a sigh of relief and head into conference play this weekend. The race to the league title game in Indianapolis is complicated this year by the fact that two of the six teams in the Leaders division (including undefeated Ohio State) are ineligible to win it thanks to NCAA sanctions.
With that in mind, here are the teams whose chances of making it to Indy could swing the furthest, for better or worse, on Saturday:
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Even after an embarrassing loss to Oregon State dropped them from the Top 25, the Badgers are in the best position to win the Leaders division title. Of course, that will change in a hurry if they don’t look like the Badgers of old against No. 22 Nebraska in Lincoln.
With concussed Montee Ball cleared to play, Wisconsin could well shred the Huskers defense the way UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin did—217 yards on 26 carries—in handing Nebraska its only loss. The bet here, though, is that the Badgers’ freshman quarterback, Joel Steve, will look as unimpressive as he did last week against UTEP and open the door for Taylor Martinez to lead a high-scoring Nebraska win.
2. Michigan State Spartans
For the third time in five games, Michigan State must defend its home field against a nationally-ranked opponent. Unfortunately for the Spartans, No. 14 Ohio State looks a lot more like the Fighting Irish team that whipped MSU than the Boise State squad that lost a heartbreaker in East Lansing.
A win for Michigan State would put them in the driver’s seat in the Legends division, but dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller will pose a daunting challenge for the up-and-down Spartan defense. Michigan State will keep this one close with Le’Veon Bell’s ball-control talents, but look for superior quarterbacking to carry the Buckeyes to a last-second win.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini
If Wisconsin falters, no team is in a better position to steal the Leaders division than Illinois. The Illini have one of the division’s most dangerous signal-callers in Nathan Scheelhaase, but getting off to a quick start this week will be vital.
Illinois can’t afford to open conference play with a home loss to Penn State, because their road schedule (at Wisconsin, at Michigan, at Ohio State) is brutal. Assuming the banged-up Scheelhaase is ready to go as projected, though, his combination of running and passing skills will put up more points than the inconsistent Nittany Lions can match.